By Kyle Shaner
VERSAILLES – Versailles enters the Sweet 16 having won 16 of its last 18 games, including its last 10.
But the Lady Tigers’ results weren’t always that spectacular as they started the season 4-4 and lost their first three Midwest Athletic Conference games. It was unfamiliar territory for the team, which lost a total of three MAC games the previous three seasons combined.
“It was tough at first, but I think we all kind of came together,” senior Kristin Langston said. “Took on some roles that we had to fulfill from last year and so far it’s been going pretty good.”
Versailles had to replace four starters from last year’s Ohio High School Athletic Association Division III state championship team. With so many holes to fill, it took the Tigers a while to build the chemistry that has helped fuel their strong run since mid-December.
“We figured out our chemistry mostly,” senior Lauren Monnin said. “We weren’t really clicking at the beginning. And again we had so many new girls playing with each other that hadn’t played with each other last year. Once we figured out that we could get a chemistry and get a flow going it was just like a domino effect. We got better and better each game.”
Versailles’ slow start now is a distant memory as the Tigers are trying to return to the OHSAA state final four in Columbus for a third consecutive year.
“We have to keep playing the way we’re playing,” Versailles girls basketball coach Jacki Stonebraker said. “We’re playing with a lot of intensity, we’re playing with the attitude that we don’t take any breaks, we keep going, we dive after every loose ball, we grab every rebound that we’re able to get, and we just have a never-say-die attitude. I think that all started back with the Tri-Village game. When you get down so much and they bury you and then you just have to fight back, fight back … that’s what we’re used to so we just keep fighting and fighting and fighting until that buzzer goes off.”
Part of what allows Versailles to play with such intensity is its depth. The Tigers have about a dozen players who can contribute, and once they each started to understand their defensive responsibilities the wins started to pile up.
“We can just rotate in,” Stonebraker said. “We can press, press, press. We can keep rotating. When you can put two or three defenders on one girl it shakes that offense up a little bit because they’re not used to that type of defense. And then we switch them again, and they’re not used to that type of defense. Hopefully we can continue with that.”
The offense also has matured. Prior to the start of the season Stonebraker’s biggest worry was the offense after losing so many scorers to graduation, but players have stepped up with Monnin, Danielle Winner and Kami McEldowney all averaging 10 or more points a game.
“Lauren has really taken a leadership role and played within herself,” Stonebraker said. “She’s a 5-foot-8 post player that can jump and can create her own shots. Kami just steps in and hits the open shots or she can take the dribble-drive. They all have their own little identity. Danielle does a great job playing with her back to the basket and cleans up a lot of stuff under the boards. But they all seem to work together. They all are communicating well on offense, and that’s what it takes. And it took us a little while to get started.”
Having a plethora of scoring options on the outside and inside has helped to make Versailles tough to defend.
“We don’t have just those three scorers,” Stonebraker said. “We bring girls off the bench. We have two other starters. We just keep rotating in, and I really feel like we’re a hard team to scout because we’ve got shooters everywhere. This shooter might be on tonight, and then we bring another girl in the game that’s also hitting 3s. I really feel as if we have a good nine or 10 girls that can really play a lot of good offense.”
McEldowney, the only returning starter from last year’s state championship team, said the coaching staff also has done a great job of putting the team in position to succeed.
“I think our coaches have scouted pretty well and tell us the key parts to winning,” the sophomore said. “That has led us to victory.”
The latest challenge for the Tigers and their coaches is figuring out how to stop Ohio Heritage Conference champion West Liberty-Salem, who is led by 6-foot 4-inch University of Dayton volleyball commit Jamie Peterson.
“Obviously they’ve got Peterson inside, but I don’t think that she’s the entire team,” Stonebraker said. “They’ve got some nice shooters on the outside. No. 23 (Taylor Lauck), their point guard, and No. 4 (Gabby Hollar), their point guard that comes in off the bench, does a nice job finding open looks or getting dribble lanes that they can take the ball to the hole. Thirteen (Lily Yoder) is a great shooter from the outside, but she also likes to sneak backside and get some lobs on the backside when Peterson takes all the zone with her on the top. I really feel like Peterson is the main key – you really need to make sure you keep her settled down – but the other shooters you have to find them and make sure that you know where they’re at.”
Versailles will take on West Liberty-Salem in the OHSAA regional semifinals at 8 p.m. today at Springfield High School. The winner will advance to Saturday’s regional final with a spot in the state final four on the line.
This year’s team looks significantly different than the ones from the past two years, but the Tigers have found their own identity and what it takes to win, allowing them to return to the regional tournament for a third consecutive season.
“I think it’s a privilege, definitely,” Monnin said. “We always lose a lot (of players) every year, but I think we’re able to come back and build back up. It’s always great to be back.”
Kyle Shaner may be reached at 937-569-4316.